HS2 innovation manager Heather Donald reveals how the railway is driving change

Even though construction of High Speed 2 (HS2) is still in its early stages, it has already been the proving ground for numerous innovations. “We want to leave a legacy for the UK, so we are supporting projects that adopt new technologies or new ways of working,” says project promoter HS2 Ltd’s innovation manager Heather Donald.  Donald – a chartered accountant by training – joined HS2 Ltd in September 2020 after working for Heathrow for five years. “That was a really interesting place to learn about the transport sector,” she says.

Even though her focus was on aviation, she adds “there is a lot of crossover into rail”.  At Heathrow, Donald was initially part of the sustainability team and then moved onto the expansion project team, focusing on innovation. 

We run feasibility studies or proofs of concepts that really de-risk the idea for the supply chain

Her current role involves managing HS2 Ltd’s phase one stations innovation portfolio and exploring opportunities for innovation across the design, construction and operation phases.  She is also managing the portfolio of innovation projects originating from the centres of British academic excellence HS2 Ltd is working with.

The company has agreements with the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities co-ordinated by the Universities of Loughborough and Southampton; and the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network coordinated by the University of Birmingham. Donald says her work entails “thinking about what the world would look like in 2050 and how that can shape our innovation portfolio”. HS2 Ltd’s areas of focus in terms of innovation are: productivity, safety, the environment and customer.

The company has been open to innovative ideas from a wide range of sources and has developed an accelerator programme tailored to technology-focused small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). 

HS2 Ltd has used a virtual reality model developed by Mima and WSP to test wayfinding designs for its Old Oak Common station “We get ideas from academia; our corporate supply chain, which is very involved in bringing forward innovation; the innovation accelerator; and our ecosystem partners,” Donald says. She adds that some ideas originate from within the business. 

She says she is working with many “natural innovators” from within the company and its corporate supply chain “who just want to do things differently and see the opportunity of HS2 to do that” because of its sheer size and the fact that it is a long term project.  For ideas to be developed, a de-risking process takes place.  “We run feasibility studies or proofs of concepts that really de-risk the idea for the supply chain.

We show that it has a commercial return,” says Donald.  “Also, when it’s relevant [we demonstrate] a carbon return, so we quantify savings in terms of cut tonnes of CO2.” HS2 Ltd provides funding to companies to trial a new technology or a new way of working on its sites. “So that’s our strategy, we de-risk it in one joint venture (there are several joint-ventures working on HS2) or one project and then make it available to roll out across the rest of the programme,” she explains.

Station navigation

As an innovation manager, Donald has been involved in a wide range of projects.

One of them is the Hiper Pile, a hollow pile that can be used to produce geothermal energy. The Hiper Pile is currently being deployed on Mace Dragados’ new site offices at HS2’s Euston terminal in London.  “There hasn’t been much piling innovation in the past 70 years and I think the Hiper Pile project at Euston has got people excited about the potential that it offers, both from a carbon point of view and [for use] on other parts of the programme,” says Donald. 

She has also worked on a project which involved the use of virtual reality, eye tracking and emotion sensing technology to test the way-showing strategy at HS2’s Old Oak Common station in north west London. Once complete, the station will have 14 platforms – six for HS2 – and will be an interchange for up to 250,000 passengers a day. How those people flow through the station is critical to its success.

Donald claims using these technologies for this purpose is a world first. For this project, the company commissioned design and technology firm Mima and Old Oak Common station designer WSP to develop a tool to combine the technologies and a virtual reality model of the station.  “We built a model of what the station would look like with shops in it and lots of other people,” she explains. “It was combining those three different technologies in that immersive environment which was the real innovation.” 

Members of the public were selected to take part in a trial of this programme, with inclusivity at the heart of the selection process. They wore virtual reality headsets fitted with eye-tracking and emotion-sensing technology and were asked to take part in journeys that reflected real life scenarios.   “The question we wanted answered was: can our passengers reach their destination, the right train door at the right time while feeling calm and relaxed?” Donald explains. 

“The results showed that while passengers could find their way around Old Oak Common, we knew that from the emotion sensing tech some didn’t always arrive at their destination feeling calm and relaxed.

Knowledge sharing

Donald believes that it is important to share information about the innovations HS2 Ltd has invested in as the benefits could help the entire HS2 programme, as well as the wider infrastructure sector.  “Knowledge sharing is a massive part of what we do, so we have platforms internally where we share all of our projects once they’ve been de-risked.  “We also share them externally through organisations like the Infrastructure Industry Innovation Partnership,” says Donald.

I3P is a community of client and supply chain organisations that have made a commitment to deliver collaborative innovation through projects. Last year, HS2 Ltd organised the HS2 Innovation Engine Week which was more than 20 events where innovative ideas developed for the project could be shared.  “I think it is really important that we look to innovate for the future; we are not focusing on solving today’s problems, but we are focusing on solving problems in the future,”
she concludes.

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